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Hikers from all over the world flock to Madeira to hike its sheer volcanic peaks, dramatic scenic landscape and world-famous levadas.
There are so many fantastic Madeira walks you will be spoilt for choice!
What is a levada?
The Madeira levadas are an impressive network of irrigation channels found all over this beautiful Atlantic island.
Most of the levadas were dug by hand in the 19th century, many using slave labour, and were created to divert water from the mountains to the plantations on the coast.
There are over 1, 350 miles of levadas in Madeira.
The thin concrete levada channel varies in depth from one to several feet. All the levadas have a narrow, earthen footpath running alongside them which is the hiking path.
Basic signage indicates the start of a levada walk and sometimes include a map as well as information about the trail length, ability levels and sights en route. There are rarely any signs on the paths themselves.
Some levada paths are flat, others are steep but most of the paths involve steep drops and inclines.
Levada hiking tips.
Choose your walks carefully before embarking on a hike.
Choose walks that accurately reflect your abilities, not the sights or experiences you wish to have.
There are frequent injuries and sometimes fatalities on the levadas of Madeira.
If the weather is bad, choose a less exposed route. If the weather is very hot, you may want a hike with some shade.
Always tell someone which walk you are going to hike.
With over 200 walks to choose from, rescuers will not know where to start looking!
We did not know anyone on Madeira and were staying in an Airbnb, so we sent social media messages to family members letting them know which walk we were doing and what time we expected to finish.
If at all possible, do not walk alone.
Join other tourists or join a guided walk.
Wear sturdy, good gripping footwear.
Paths range from uneven, lichen covered rocky paths to earthen paths which are impacted and smooth when dry, but a slippery mud bath when wet.
All paths will be wet at some point due to water spray from tumbling levadas and waterfalls. The routes can get very slippy!
Bring plenty of snacks and drinks
There are no facilities on the rural paths.
Bring all rubbish away with you, including used toilet paper, so don’t forget to pack some biodegradable bags for your litter. We were pleasantly surprised to see very little litter along the Madeira levada walks.
Be prepared for all weathers.
In addition to food and drink in your backpack, carry sunscreen for exposed routes and bring waterproofs even it is sunny.
Weather changes are unpredictable and can occur quickly. On one walk we experienced a ten-degree temperature drop!
Check the weather forecast for the area you will be visiting.
The weather can vary dramatically at different locations on the island.
It can be sunny and clear on the coast but heavy rain and dense fog in the mountains.
Paths need time to recover after bad weather.
If it has been raining heavily the day before, the path you choose to walk the following day may still be slippery and treacherous.
On one occasion, we were strongly advised against our planned hike by the car rental company. Unbeknownst to us, it had rained heavily the day before in the mountains and the rental agent said our chosen path would be treacherous.
Do detailed research on the levada walks.
We quickly realized that when a levada walk is classed as ‘easy’, it means that the terrain is easy (no steep ascents or descents) and that the path is well maintained and easy to follow.
It does not necessarily refer to the location of the walk!
One of the ‘easy’ walks we did was flat and easy to follow but involved walking alongside continual steep drops and inclines. Our children were fine – we were careful! – but it was nerve-racking in places!
Bring a torch and spare batteries on every walk.
We did a hike which said ‘tunnel’ on the map.
The tunnel turned out to be a low ceiled, narrow, utility tunnel over 1 kilometre long! There were no lights at all and within seconds we were plunged into pitch blackness.
It was thrilling but would have been impossible, and dangerous, without our head torches.
‘Narrow’ means narrow!
A path which is described as narrow means it is six inches across and only wide enough for one foot behind the other!
Keep children close at all times.
Steep drops are often camouflaged by vegetation debris at the side of the path. The edge of the path looked solid when it was not! We had to constantly remind our children not to stand on the edge of the path.
Do not lean on railings!
Railings are provided to highlight steep drops and to act as a guide in bad weather. They are not regularly maintained or checked and should not be leant on!
Plan your travel carefully.
Levada walks are mostly linear, meaning you will end the hike in a different location to where you started.
If you are relying on public buses for transportation, make sure you know the bus timetable before you start your walk in order to avoid a long wait – or an expensive taxi ride – at the end of your hike.
Timetables are restricted on weekends and public holidays.
We abandoned a planned hike after realising we would have a five-hour wait for the bus after finishing the walk. Not an option with three kids!
Our choice of levada walks in Madeira was heavily influenced by holiday bus timetables and bad weather!
We hike to the abilities of our youngest child so in Madeira, we chose mostly flat, sheltered routes of around 4 hours in length.
We tried – and failed – to find hikes without steep drops!
Levada do Risco
How to get to the start
We completed the Levada do Risco on the one sunny walking day we had during our trip to Madeira.
Despite our planning (note to self – read the planning tip above!) we took an alternative driving route and ended up parking – and starting the hike – in a different location to the one we had planned.
However, this proved to be a fortunate error as the initial stages of the walk were very picturesque, devoid of people and involved walking through a 1-kilometre long tunnel which was the highlight of the levada hike for our difficult to please mini hikers!
To begin the Levada do Risco from this point, continue past the Rabacal parking spot (which is the usual starting point for the hike), over the hill and take the next left onto a cobbled, winding, descending road to reach a small parking area on your right.
If travelling from Calheta by rural roads to Rabacal and you will reach the car park before you join the main road to Rabacal. The drive from Calheta is very steep a 10% gradient, and though wide by most Madeira roads standards, you will still be praying you don’t meet another vehicle travelling in the opposite direction!
The Levada do Risco hike.
The hike begins through dense eucalyptus trees with a rich aromatic smell.
The path emerges into the open, hugging the hillside with expansive views to down to Calheta and the Atlantic. Wild lilies and violet agapanthus growing on the hillside add to the array of scents.
The path arrives at the 1-kilometre long tunnel. It is pitch black, rocky underfoot and has a low roof in places.
My 6ft 5 husband spent a lot of time with his torch pointing up at the roof to protect his head! The tunnel encases a large water pipe with an additional levada channel running underneath.
Unnervingly, half way through the tunnel, the echoey sounds suddenly become muffled and eerily silent. Our kids loved it and insisted we return the same route!
The tunnel ends at a dense forest. The levada cuts through the trees with occasional breaks in the vegetation for fantastic views.
Overhanging, intertwined, lichen laden branches create a shaded canopy. Ferns and spotted orchids line the forest path. There were only a couple of steep drops on this section.
After one hour, the walk joins the path leading from Rabacal Forestry Hut and becomes much wider and busier with people.
Shortly afterwards, the path splits into two with one path leading to Levada do Risco and the other to Levada de 25 Fontes. Climb the steep, long steps to continue on the Levada do Risco.
The first glimpse of the Levada do Risco waterfall is breathtaking – the high, tumbling waterfall resembles a scene from Jurassic Park.
The walk ends with a stunning view of the waterfall, which sparkles and creates rainbows in the sunshine. It is no longer possible to walk behind the waterfall and when you see the precipitous path you will understand why!
This levada hike is a linear path so we returned the same route.
Levada de Alecrim
How to get to the start
This unplanned walk was very different to the Levada do Risco hike and was challenging for our children due to the terrain and bad weather.
We parked in the main Rabacal car park which is well signposted from the main coastal routes.
However, by the time we had arrived from the sunny coast, we found ourselves in a dense fog, gusty winds and heavy rain – accompanied by a ten-degree temperature drop! There was no glimpse of the famed Rabacal moorland view!
So we quickly changed our planned hike and opted for the Levada do Alecrim walk as it was reputedly sheltered.
Our children were happy and excited to leave the warm car and start hiking in 6-degree Celsius wind and rain.
The Levada de Alecrim hike.
The path starts shortly after leaving the car park and is well signposted. It hugs an elevated section of the valley wall with the Levada do 25 Fontes path far below.
A dense tree canopy provided some shelter from the wind and rain. However, the path was very rocky and it was tiring to pick our way along, rather than walk.
For most of the walk, there was a drop into the levada of 2-3 feet.
On the other side of the path, vegetation debris hid varying steep drops. We had to constantly remind the children not to stand on the vegetation as it was not solid.
There were several very exposed viewpoints but the fog was too thick to see any views.
The weather continued to deteriorate so unfortunately, after two hours we turned back. The levada leads to a scenic waterfall and would be lovely on a sunny day!
Just watch out for the steep drops!
Prazeres to Calheta Levada
How to get to the start
This walk was a complete surprise as it did not match the description we had read about it!
The walk is well signposted on brown tourist signs from the pretty village of Prazeres. There is limited parking available on the side of the road at the start of the hike.
Start walking against the flow of the levada. You will pass several houses and a farm before rounding the hillside into a magnificent forest of eucalyptus trees.
The Prazeres to Calheta levada hike.
The path and levada follow the contours of the hillside in and out of the valley bends so some may find the unchanging views boring.
But we loved this walk and despite another day of cloud and rain, it was one of our favourite Madeira walks.
The path was quiet and devoid of other hikers. The whole valley was an explosion of colour and sweet Spring scents.
The eucalyptus leaves varied in colour from the husky blue leaves of young saplings to the deep green leaves of adult trees. In stark contrast to this, were the silvery, peeling trunks adjacent to the blackened stumps of trees which had sustained fire damage.
Purple balls of blooming Agapanthus lined the path next to vivid lime green curled ferns. On the hillside next to the grey levada was bush after bush of bright yellow Broom.
Throw in the birdsong and it was a delight to walk this levada.
The path is flat and smooth but the compacted mud was slippery in places.
It is also very narrow in places! There are very few sheer vertical drops but a consistent, very steep incline.
Ideas for Levada walk
We did not do as many Levada walks as we had hoped to. These hikes have been added to our list for a future trip!
For a scenic, coastal Levada – Levada Caldeirao Verde
For a mega long hike – Levada da Riberia Da Janela (30 kms long)
Cliff hike – Vereda Da Ponta De Sao Lourenco
Madeira’s highest walk – Vereda do Areeiro to Pico Ruivo
Other Madeira Walks
If you decide that hiking a levada is not for you, there are other walks you can do which will still give you dramatic viewpoints of Madeira.
Vereda do Balcoes
The Balcoes is one of the most popular walking routes in Madeira, particularly with day-tripping cruise ship passengers.
It is easily accessible by bus or car from the capital Funchal (1 ½ hour drive) and offers stunning views from its flat, short circular path.
The easy hike takes around 1 1/2 hours to complete.
Um Caminho para todos
As the name suggests, a walk suitable for everyone. It is an easy one-hour nature walk starting in Santana.
Funchal Marina to Praia Formosa and Cabos do Lobos
The Marina is a flat, pleasant stroll with cruise ships to ogle and live guitar music on bar terraces proving a distraction for weary feet.
You can walk all the way to Praia Formosa but we found the walk neither scenic or pleasant; catch a bus and skip this section!
Get off the bus at the lido and join the pleasant promenade to Praia Formosa.
There is access through a beachfront bar to a tunnel which brings you to the start of Praia Formosa. Unfortunately when we visited the tunnel was closed so we had to do a long detour through the hotel area to find access to the beach.
Praia Formosa has free toilets and changing room facilities and three friendly bars. The beach is black/grey sand with large pebbles and rocks.
From the beach there is a wooden walkway hugging the shoreline around the base of the cliffs to Cabos do Lobos from where you can catch a bus back to Funchal.
A short, flat, fully paved walk suitable for all ages, wheelchair users and pushchairs.
Calheta promenade stretches alongside the two man-made sandy beaches and harbour of Calheta and continues into the small, pretty marina.
Jardim do Mar Promenade
We were visited here on a whim as we happened to be driving past; charming Jardim do Mar is worth the detour!
At the end of the winding descent, park in the designated car park for the village and walk down the steep steps and slopes to the promenade.
The promenade is a lovely stroll, bordered on one side by colourful Bird Of Paradise plants and palms.
Walk right to the end of the promenade for impressive views of the dramatic cliffs rising vertically from the sea.
There is also a fantastic view of little Paul do Mar, huddled on a strip of flat land looking very isolated and vulnerable to the sea.
And finally …
To help you effectively and successfully plan your Madeira walks and levada hikes, get a copy of one of the Madeira hiking guidebooks published by Sunflower Guides. Their descriptions of the levadas were the most accurate and comprehensive that we found.
Have you hiked the Madeira levadas? Or know of any hidden gem walks? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you.